The Portland Trail Blazers and the New Orleans Pelicans will face off in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs in a series that pits superstars Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis against each other. Though All-Stars will grab the headlines, there’s more to a seven-game marathon than pedigrees and points per game. In preparation for Game 1 of the series, here’s a statistical breakdown of how both teams have performed this year: their strengths, weaknesses, and how they plan to gain advantage over the opponent.
The Season Series
Blazers Record: 49-33 (28-13 Home / 21-20 Road)
Pelicans Record: 48-34 (24-17 Home / 24-17 Road)
Head-to-Head: Series Tied 2-2
Tues, Oct 24— Blazers Win 103-93 in Portland
Sat, Dec 2— Pelicans Win 123-116 in Portland
Fri, Jan 12— Pelicans Win 119-113 in New Orleans
Tues, Mar 27— Blazers Win 107-103 in New Orleans
The obvious common denominator in all but the last of the four games between these teams was the out-sized contribution of DeMarcus Cousins...now injured and not on the Pelicans’ playoff roster. His absence will color this series significantly. But New Orleans still closed the season 21-13 without Cousins. They’re not a one-trick pony. If their offensive stats are any indication, they’re more like a stampeding herd.
Here’s how the Blazers and Pelicans break down in percentage offense (statistics independent of pace). In all charts, “Rank” equals position out of 30 NBA teams. Top ten rankings are in green, bottom ten in red.
New Orleans runs an efficient offense, as might be expected from a team fielding two dominant bigs. Their conversion rate is high, a product of inside scoring. Their impressive assist ratio comes from feeding the Big Dogs. Though they hit threes at an average percentage, they aren’t three-point oriented. Lack of free throws is their relative weakness. You’d think an offense predicated on getting the ball inside to a superstar would produce more, except nobody but Davis and Cousins draws any foul shots whatsoever.
The Blazers are diametric opposites in a couple ways. They create virtually no assists because Lillard and CJ McCollum take most of their shots. Their teammates aren’t high-volume scorers. Post play is spotty. If the wings are doing damage, it’s probably from the outside. It’s surprising that the Blazers don’t generate and hit more three-pointers than the Pelicans, but the Blazers can take comfort in the overall offensive efficiency being close even if the Pelicans dominate in percentage shooting.
Here we see the potential terror of New Orleans’ attack, and one of the factors the Blazers will need to manage. The Pelicans lead the NBA in pace. The wall of green on the right shouldn’t scare you entirely; fast pace generates more attempts, which drive up aggregate numbers. Combined with high-percentage offense, though, the ability to generate shots could spell trouble.
This will be a battle of tempo. The faster the Pelicans can go, the more easy shots they can set up around or through Portland’s defense. If the Blazers can make New Orleans hold up a little, the extra points generated by triples and free throws will allow them to outpace the Pelicans’ two-point shots.
That said, it’s hard to miss the 9-point deficit Portland runs in the paint and the 7 points they give up on fast break differential. Cousins being out will ease some of that, but the Blazers need to be careful not to let the game slip away from them, or else the Pelicans will generate an insurmountable number of points via easy looks while Portland slogs along with more difficult ones.
Both Portland and New Orleans play defense well. Neither relies on turnovers; both play percentages. Portland’s low field goal percentage allowed is going to come into direct conflict with New Orleans’ high field goal percentage generated. The real puzzle may come at the three-point arc, though. The Blazers limit opponent threes, but New Orleans doesn’t rely on them. Will this completely stifle the perimeter game of the Pelicans, turning “little” into “nothing”, or will half of Portland’s cards end up not mattering? Can New Orleans defend well against Portland’s three-point shooting in turn, or will jumpers take away the interior intimidation factor, rendering the Pelicans’ defense less effective?
Just as the wall of green on the Pelicans’ aggregate offense chart got an asterisk because of pace, so too the wall of red on defense. Fast pace equals more attempts for both teams, meaning both will score more on average. Two numbers should legitimately scare the Pelicans, though. Allowing 110.6 points to a team that soars when it scores is like waving meatloaf in front of a Doberman, plus the Blazers love to generate field goal attempts. Give Portland a chance to shoot themselves out of a cold streak and they probably will.
Despite the green on the chart, Portland’s defense is not that much better than New Orleans’, they just go slower. If the Blazers keep the Pelicans in the low 100’s, they have a great shot. The closer the meter gets to 110, the more New Orleans is going to like it.
Here’s where Portland can take this series by the reins and drag it to where they want it. The team that rebounds best usually controls tempo as well. The Blazers are better on the glass than the Pelicans in every way that matters.
Offensive rebounds and second-chance points are far more of a priority for Portland than New Orleans. This is a philosophical decision as much as a personnel issue. The Pelicans want to get back and play the odds; they can score points in other ways besides cleaning the offensive glass. It’ll be interesting to see if that philosophy changes when they know the Blazers operate in a fast-break desert.
Rebounding could provide one of the chess moves that tilts this series. Whether the Pelicans change up or not, if the Blazers don’t build an edge on the offensive glass, they’re going to lose a key advantage. New Orleans winning that battle would be a bad sign for Portland.
Up Next: Looking at individual performances from key players for both teams.